South Koreans were not feeling very optimistic in the year 1982. After a brief political spring in late 1979/early 1980, the autocratic regime of Chun Doo Hwan had secured its grip on power with a violent suppression of civil unrest. Most people lived hard lives, and saw little potential for change. Around this time, a novel by Lee Dong-cheol titled People of the Slums became a bestseller. It told the story of a woman from a poor district of Seoul who was struggling to raise a son after going through some particularly difficult life experiences. In the wake of the book’s success, several production companies contacted the author seeking rights to make a film adaptation. In the end, Lee decided to entrust his story to a first-time director who had impressed him with his dedication and vision.
In this way, the remarkable career of director Bae Chang-ho began. Over the next five years he would shoot the smash hits Whale Hunting (1984) and Deep Blue Night (1985), and gain the nickname “the Steven Spielberg of Korea.” The comparison is not inappropriate, in that what most distinguishes Bae Chang-ho from other Korean directors is his method of storytelling. Although he is naturally drawn to social outsiders in a way that Spielberg is not, there is something Spielbergian in the way that Bae tells a story.
This first film presented some challenges, however. Bae himself set out to adapt the novel into a screenplay, however his vision did not sit well with government censors (who tended to be stricter towards cinema as opposed to literature). Even before the start of production, the script was rejected five times and the censors listed 60 elements that they wanted changed. The requested changes included the film’s title, the attitude of policemen towards the slum residents, and a husband pulling on his wife’s hair during a fight. Their objections were seemingly not so much ideological, as an effort to weaken the film’s potential impact. Bae went ahead and shot the film in his own way, and managed to avoid at least some of the requested modifications.
The film centers around a woman named Myung-sook who for mysterious reasons always wears black gloves. She tries her best to raise her young son, but he is rebellious and exhibits a disturbing tendency to steal things. In recent years she has married, and has started running a small store. But one day, the father of her son reappears after years of silence.
People of the Slums exhibits a surprising urgency and strength, especially considering the circumstances in which it was made. In gradually revealing the past experiences of his protagonists, Bae not only explains their actions but also imbues each character with a tragic weight. No one is perfectly innocent in this film, but on the other hand we come to appreciate just how much the world is aligned against them.
In 2013 the Korean Film Archive in partnership with CJ Powercast remastered this film and underwent color correction in consultation with the director. The resulting visuals are quite striking: undeniably a product of the 1980s, but with added clarity and preciseness of color. It captures something of the beauty of a Seoul that has long since vanished, bulldozed over in subsequent waves of construction. It’s only a bit over three decades since this film was made, and yet from today’s perspective it seems unrecognizable. All the better reason to revisit it now. It contains weaknesses that you would never encounter in contemporary Korean films, but the same can be said of its strengths.